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A mining town full of danger, yet more precious than gold

The generations that lived in Kolar Gold Fields might never have got actual wealth from the mined gold, but that gold created for them a town they loved

The author's father MD Narayanan as a junior accountant dispensing pay to the miners in the 1950s at Kolar Gold Fields. (Courtesy Gita Aravamudan)

In 1885, when John Taylor & Sons struck their first rich vein of gold in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), the mines were little more than pits in the ground. But the gold came out thick and fast. The average annual output of gold rose from 750 kgs in 1790 to 17,000 kgs by 1910. Gold production remained high over the next two decades, hovering around 12,000 kg per annum.

The gold fields at Kolar had come alive. KGF opened up what seemed to be great employment opportunities. It became a haven and refuge for people from several parts of the world. The Cornish and Irish who landed here were skilled miners whose families had worked for generations in coal pits. The Italians had worked in marble mines. Many of them had escaped poverty in their own countries.

To be fair to the white men who were the pioneers, they risked their lives and worked hard at creating the enormous subterranean labyrinth of tunnels which crisscrossed the earth beneath our feet. They did the initial explorations and set up the “modern” costly mechanisms to identify and extract the gold. The KGF cemetery bears testimony to the many who died in the process.

But mining is not just about technology. It is a dangerous and physically demanding profession, which is also expensive and labour intensive. The company needed deep coffers to set up the mines and a large workforce to make it viable. It needed men. Men who were willing to go into the pits, endure the unbearable humidity and heat, crawl in the pitch darkness through dangerous tunnels, handle explosives and risk their lives. And all for a pittance.

The labour force in KGF expanded from around 9,000 in 1891 to around 35,000 in 1907. A four-fold increase in just 20 years. The bulk of these miners came from the surrounding areas. They had no prior mining experience and were escaping from a life of poverty and bonded labour. Almost all of them were landless agrarian workers who were at the receiving end of an obnoxious and well-entrenched caste system in their own villages. They had nothing to lose when they escaped and moved out in search of a better life. Probably when the first few miners-to-be arrived they had no clue about the enormous dangers they were about to face.

Tamil-speaking men who drifted in from neighbouring villages fitted the bill exactly. Though KGF is technically situated in the erstwhile Mysore state (now Karnataka) which is Kannada-speaking, it is fringed by Tamil and Telugu areas. Most of the men came from North Arcot and other surrounding villages which lay in the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu). Some also came from close-by Telugu-speaking areas like Kuppam and Chittoor.

In some of the colonial mining towns in Africa there was a compound system which ensured that the occupants, who were all single males, were contained within a compound. In KGF the system was different. There were labour “lines” where families could stay. Unlike the spacious and well-appointed bungalows allotted to the officers, these “line” houses, which were separated from the mining area, were one-room huts with mud-flooring, zinc sheet roofs and common toilets and water taps. Whenever there were plague outbreaks caused by major rat infestations, the mud floors were dug up to eliminate the rodents. And into these were crowded the extended families of the miners. Sometimes more than 14 people lived in one hut.

Champion Reef Mine, Kolar Gold Fields.
Champion Reef Mine, Kolar Gold Fields. (Courtesy: Gita Aravamudan)

As activity increased inside the mines, so did the accident rate. Rock-bursts, fires, and falling rocks took many lives. From 1908-46 the accident death rate per unit value of gold extracted in Kolar was higher than in Transvaal. As the accident rates kept soaring, the management tried to pass them off as unavoidable and often blamed the workers themselves for being reckless, thus avoiding having to pay them compensation. The safety of the workers was not of high priority and they continued to crawl down dark tunnels with no headgear and holding flickering oil lamps or candles. Often, if they missed a step they would fall down a deep dark shaft and be lost forever.

As the demand for more labour grew, contractors were hired to bring in more men. The new set of contract labourers were even worse off than those in the company pay. They were not even eligible to housing in the lines and were given huts made of thatti (thatch), which often blew away in the wind. The inhabitants humorously referred to their dwelling places as “aeroplane huts”. Their pay depended on their output and more often than not, they ended up working several hours over time to sustain themselves.

Labour unrest in KGF began as early as 1908, but the general strike which brought things to a head happened in 1930. 16,000 workers decided to go on a strike for 21 days. There was police action and several miners were injured.

By this time, the outlook of the pioneering native miners had changed. Life down the mines, though oppressive, had, in its own way, given them freedom and a sense of identity. They took pride in what they were doing and felt strong enough to demand more from the owners. They were so familiar with life and death underground that they could joke about it. A popular saying encapsulated this spirit: “Keelay pona ponam, melay vanda panam” (If you go down, corpse. If you come up, money).

Most of them had rejected the oppressive caste-based religion which had been used to stamp them down in their villages. They now identified themselves as Adi Dravidas (not Harijans or Dalits) and Buddhists or Ambedkarites. Many had converted to Christianity. KGF was now their hometown and no one wanted to go back.

Soon after the strike in 1930, my grandfather M.A. Sreenivasan, then a 33-year-old civil servant with the Mysore government, was asked by the then dewan to investigate the cause for the unrest. He descended into the pits with the workers to find out more about their working conditions. His report Labour in India is one of the earliest investigative reports of labour conditions in KGF.

He described in detail the terrible working conditions, scanty pay and poor living conditions of the miners. Most importantly, he pointed out that the company refused to even acknowledge the fact that many of the miners contracted the dreaded disease known as silicosis caused by inhaling silica found in the rocks. Though this was an occupational hazard, it was neither properly treated nor compensated by the company. It was euphemistically called “pulmonary tuberculosis" and the only “compensation” the affected miner was given was a third-class train ticket back to his hometown.

Sreenivasan’s suggestions regarding treatment and compensation were omitted from the final sanitized report which was published. This was because, according to a company representative, the financial implications of paying compensation “were so serious that the company would have to shut shop and go home”. It was only after 1940 when the Mysore silicosis rules were passed that silicosis was recognized as a specific disease which had to be treated at the company’s expense.

Historian Janaki Nair, who researched the lives of the miners in detail in the 1990s, made a documentary titled, After the Gold, in which she interviewed miners of different vintages. Their descriptions of life underground and the events that drove them to political activism give us a very real and vivid picture.

It is interesting to see the different perspectives. While some miners say that the British exploited them fully and never even gave them protective clothing or headgear, others say the British were the ones who explored new reefs and developed the mines and if they had stayed, the mines would never have been closed.

Nair has also written a paper, "Dangerous Labour: Crime, Work and Punishment in Kolar Gold Fields, 1898-1946", in which she traces how the paranoia of the company owners over gold being smuggled out of the mines, led them to treat the workmen like criminals. They were punished severely for the smallest of crimes. Accidents inside the mines which happened all too often “were considered "criminal follies" brought on by the deliberate carelessness of workmen, resulting in an unacceptable "loss of time and money". The native workmen were subjected to humiliating strip searches and any miner living in the township could be taken in and questioned for possessing what was considered unaccounted wealth.

This gave rise to the rather wry saying, "Kazhudaye meyechalum companykku meyekkanam" (Even if you graze a donkey, do it for the company). An underground maisthri (worker) told my grandfather in 1930, “Enna Saami, onga Mysore governmentan thangathai poye vellakkaranukku kudutthu, irumbay nondran?" (Sir, why does your Mysore government give away gold to the whiteman and scratch for iron?)

And yet the vellaikaran (white men) continued to exploit the mines for another 25 years. The glittering, mesmerizing gold helped to line the pockets of those at the top of the pyramid. Those who gave their sweat and toil, even their lives to the mines, never even got a whiff of the wealth they helped generate.

But, as all those who have ever lived in KGF would say, love it or hate it, it was the company which gave them their town and their way of life. As generations grew up within its ambience, the risk factor no longer mattered. KGF was home. The land they had made their own. They might never have got actual wealth from the gold that was mined, but that gold had created for them a town they loved and never wanted to leave.

This is the fourth of a six-part series on life in the mining township of Kolar Gold Fields, from the 1950s to the present day.

Gita Aravamudan is an author and journalist based in Bengaluru. Her books include Colour of Gold, a murder mystery set in the KGF mines, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide and Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy.

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